Amulet of Doom
The castle stood high on a mountain. Its tall windows—arched at the top and so wide an eagle could fly through them without brushing its wingtips—looked out on billowing clouds and valleys that ran deeper than thought.
Inside, Guptas the demon groveled at the feet of the king. Terror twisted the demon’s already hideous face into a mask of despair.
“Don’t do this to me,” he pleaded in a voice that sounded like rough rocks being rubbed together. “I’m not like the others! You know that!”
The king stared at the scaly creature cowering at his feet. “That much is true,” he said at last. Contempt and sorrow mingled in his voice. “You are not like the others.” He looked away from Guptas. Anger deepened his lonely eyes, and he bent his head in sorrow.
The king was silent for a moment, as if remembering something. A darkness crept across his face, and his features became like stone. “No, Guptas, you are not like the others.” He turned back to the demon, and the weariness in his voice seemed as heavy as the mountains surrounding them. “You are far, far worse.”
Guptas howled and grasped the king’s sandaled foot, cradling it in his scaly claws. Tears hissed from his eyes. Rolling off the king’s flesh without effect, they burned into the polished alabaster floor, leaving black pits where they landed.
“It wasn’t my fault! They made me do it!” The demon’s anguished words echoed off the walls of the great chamber. He began to howl, a cry of fear and despair that would have broken the heart of a lesser man.
The king, unmoved, made a noise of contempt in his throat. “You allowed them to `make’ you do it, Guptas. You were weak, and in your weakness you betrayed me. So now you must be punished.”
“Don’t do this to me,” cried the creature. “Please! I will never betray you again, I swear it!”
“What good is your word?” asked the king wearily. “You are forsworn already. If I had not been alert, I would be dead.”
Guptas rolled over and spread his arms and legs, leaving his vulnerable, scaleless belly open to attack. “Kill me!” he screeched. “Kill me now. But don’t do this other thing. I beseech you. Have mercy on Guptas who loves you!”
The king turned his face again, so that the creature could not see the tear that had formed at the corner of his eye.
Guptas, lost in his own grief, rolled on the floor and jabbered in terror. Suddenly he rose to his knees and flung his arms around the king’s legs.
“Remember your son!” he howled, his gravelly voice desperate. “Remember your son!”
The king sighed, and in his voice was the sorrow of a thousand years of loss and pain. “I had two sons,” he said.
He looked down at Guptas and allowed the mask of his anger to slip for just a moment. “Yes, Guptas. I remember my son. And I remember how you saved his life, though in the long run it did no good. Are you calling on that debt now?”
“Yes!” cried the creature. “Remember how I risked my own life that day! Remember, and be merciful.”
“I remember everything,” said the king. He turned and walked to his throne. Guptas followed at his heels, sometimes walking, sometimes crawling. His claws scrabbled on the polished stone.
“My judgment is unchanged,” said the king.
Guptas raked his claws against his forehead, howling in terror.
“My judgment stands. But this much I will add. When the time is right, I will come for you. I will come, and I will search your heart. And if I feel that I can trust you—”
Guptas threw himself at the king’s feet. “You will see!” he cried joyfully. “I can be—”
His words were cut off by a blinding flash of lightning.
Guptas was gone. A jagged scorch mark scarred the floor where he had stood. A cloud of acrid smoke hung in the air above it.
And the king, the last king in a long line of great kings, and the last man of his race, sat alone in a hall that was large enough to hold a forest and wept.
Day passed into night. At last the king rose from his throne and wandered out of the great hall, into corridors that wound for miles through the empty palace of his fathers.
In his hand he clutched an amulet.
In the center of the amulet was a scarlet stone, still blazing with a fierce heat.
“Well, I want to tell you, I never smelled anything so awful in my life. The scent of death was just clinging to the thing.”
Marilyn Sparks paused, a forkful of broccoli half way to her mouth, and stared at her Aunt Zenobia in a combination of awe and astonishment. It was hard to believe any one person could have had so many adventures—and even harder to believe she would dare to tell them at this table.
Marilyn glanced at her father. He was scowling at Zenobia—the same disapproving scowl he used on his English students when they got out of line.
Zenobia ignored him. A fiercely independent woman who had somehow cropped up in a family full of people pleasers, she was long used to scandalizing her relatives. It was almost a tradition, one that had begun way back when she refused to get married and settle down, at a time when living as a single woman was far from fashionable.
That had seemed funny to Marilyn when she first heard it; Zenobia seemed too young to have had such a problem. But then, Marilyn had a hard time remembering that Zenobia Calkins was really her great aunt, and had already seen her seventieth birthday. Marilyn didn’t think about age when she thought about Zenobia. She just adored her.
“Anyway,” continued Zenobia, “Baron de Courvis drew out his machete and started to hack away at the dead flesh. Of course, in that climate the thing had become a breeding ground for maggots, and—”
Marilyn’s mother cut Zenobia off with a sound that was just short of a shriek. “Really, Aunt Zenobia! Couldn’t you tell this some other time?”
Marilyn sighed. She should have known she could count on her mother to stop Zenobia right at the most interesting moment. A story about recovering a giant diamond from the intestines of a five-day-dead rogue elephant, no matter how fascinating, simply did not fall within Helen Sparks’s definition of table talk. Not even if it came from her father’s sister.
Zenobia looked at Mrs. Sparks with something that seemed like pity. “Of course, my dear,” she said sweetly. “I don’t know what came over me.”
Marilyn put the limp broccoli in her mouth and chewed it morosely. Her family was so stodgy!
“You will finish the story later, won’t you, Ms. Calkins?” Kyle Patterson, gangly but good-looking, a year older than Marilyn and unfortunately her brother’s best friend, had hardly taken a bite since they had sat down to supper. He was much too excited about being at the same table with a great author to eat. It was the first time Marilyn had ever seen Kyle ignore food—and she had known him since he was three.
“I don’t know,” said Zenobia, with a touch of petulance. “One has to be in the mood for these things to do them properly.”
Kyle looked stricken.
“Of course she’ll tell us,” said Geoff jovially. “Aunt Zenobia never let a good story go untold, did you?”
Marilyn glared at her brother. He was clearly unaware of how deeply their mother had offended Aunt Zenobia.
“Not if the audience is appreciative,” agreed Zenobia, deftly skewering a piece of chicken with her fork. “This bird is a trifle bland, by the by,” she said sweetly, turning to Marilyn’s mother. “You might want to try using a bit of lemon, Helen. They do it that way in Tangiers. It works quite well.”
Silence descended on the table.
It is bland, thought Marilyn, hacking a piece from her own serving of PTA-cookbook chicken—a little more savagely than was necessary—and wishing it were some fierce raptor she had somehow managed to kill with her bare hands. This whole family is bland. Mr. and Mrs. Normal Q. Boring and their children, that’s us. I don’t know why Kyle bothers with us.
She looked across the table to where Kyle was sitting, generally oblivious to her presence—as he had been for most of the last fourteen years—and smiled. He had given up on waiting for Zenobia to resume her story and finally started to eat.
That’s more like it, she thought fondly. You could use it.
It wasn’t that Kyle was skinny. But he had topped six feet this year, and his body was still filling out to match the growing he had been doing. He had a thatch of tousled blond hair (which Marilyn was itching to brush away from his forehead) and shocking blue eyes that seemed to bore right through her—whenever he bothered to look her way at all. He was at once more silly and more serious than any person she had ever known, and she had no idea why he bothered with her brother, Geoff.
But she was awfully glad he did.
When they gathered together on the porch after supper Marilyn thought, for a moment, that Kyle had finally noticed her, too. She was leaning against the railing and he took a place right next to her. She was thrilled, until she realized his reason: It placed him directly across from Zenobia, who was leaning against the opposite railing, next to Geoff. Her parents, of course, were inside—talking about how awful Zenobia was, probably.
Marilyn looked at her aunt and wondered for an instant if Kyle actually found her attractive. She was, after all, a striking woman. Her hair was pure white, really dazzling, so unlike the yellowy gray she saw on other old people. It curled around her face like a billowing cloud, accentuating the depth of her tan. Marilyn knew the time her aunt had spent in the tropical sun had added to her wrinkles. But like everything else about her, the wrinkles were attractive. Every one of them seemed to speak of experience, wisdom, even adventure. They were part of Zenobia. Zenobia was beautiful. So, by definition, the wrinkles were, too.
She was dressed in white cotton—a crisp skirt and a stylish blouse. A sturdy gold chain circled her neck, holding an amulet that, uncharacteristically and even unstylishly, she kept tucked mysteriously inside her blouse. Marilyn wondered what it looked like. She had a vague recollection that at some time earlier in the evening Zenobia had mentioned that everything she was wearing had come from Egypt.
“So what happened with the diamond, Ms. Calkins?” asked Kyle eagerly.
Zenobia waved her hand. “Oh, the Baron cut open the elephant and there it was. We sold it in on the coast for a handsome profit.”
Kyle looked like someone had pulled his plug. “Is that all?”
“Well, that leaves out the details. But that’s how it all came out.”
“But it’s the details that make it interesting”
“I know that, young man. I have managed to learn a few things in thirty years of writing best sellers. But it’s a little difficult to leap into the middle of a story with both feet. You have to build your momentum. Mine is still in the dining room, under the cake plate.”
“I’m sorry about Mom,” said Marilyn. “She’s pretty set in her ways.”
Zenobia dismissed the topic with another wave of her hand. “I’ve been dealing with the fogeys in this family since I was six years old and shocked them all by announcing I was going to run away with the minister of the Presbyterian church.” she paused to reflect for a moment, then added, “Actually, I think I said I was going to seduce him, though where I learned that work I can’t remember.”
She took out a cigar and bit off the end of it. “That was the beginning of the end, as far as the family was concerned.” She struck a wooden match on the porch railing and lit her cigar. She smoked in silence for a moment. The three teenagers waited for her to speak again.
“Maybe I should have stayed in Egypt,” she said with a sigh, flicking her ash over the railing. “I got along quite well there. Felt right at home. I always wondered if maybe I had lived there in a previous life.”
“Is Cairo as awful as it looks in the movies?” asked Kyle eagerly. He was an old film buff and tended to view the world in terms of what he saw on late-night television.
“Awful? It’s wonderful! Did I ever tell you about the time I got caught in a riot there with that fool Eldred Cooley?”
Without waiting for an answer, she launched into a bizarre story involving Egyptian politics, Chinese jewelry, three dancing girls and a monkey. Kyle settled back contentedly. Marilyn let herself lean ever so slightly in his direction.
It was very pleasant. The evening had an early summer sweetness to it, cool and filled with the scent of fading lilacs and blooming roses. The moon was nearly full, the sky cloudless and smeared with stars. In the background the spring peepers were in full chorus. And Zenobia was at the peak of her form with the blood-curdling story she was unfolding.
Until the very end, when something strange happened.
“And that was the last I saw of Eldred Cooley!” she said triumphantly. Then her eyes, which had been blazing, seemed to go all cloudy. “The last time but one,” she murmured, placing her hand at her throat. Marilyn could hear a troubled note in her voice, and when she looked more closely she noticed that Zenobia’s fingers seemed to tremble as they clasped the golden chain she wore around her neck. Suddenly she tightened her grip. For a moment Marilyn thought she was going to pull off the amulet. “The last time but one,” she repeated.
They waited respectfully. But it was almost as if Zenobia had left the porch. Her body was there—her white hair moving lightly in the breeze, her right hand clutching the last inch of her cigar. But she herself seemed to have vanished.
Finally Marilyn could stand the silence no longer. “Aunt Zenobia, are you all right?”
Zenobia blinked. “Of course,” she said hurriedly. “I was just thinking about Egypt. Egypt, and Eldred Cooley, and Suleiman.”
“You mean Solomon?” asked Kyle eagerly. “Like in King Solomon’s Mines?”
“No,” said Zenobia sharply. “Suleiman, like in Suleiman. A lot of people get them confused. Remind me and I’ll tell you about them sometime.”
With that she tossed her cigar butt over the porch railing and stalked into the house.
<-- Back to the main page for Amulet of Doom